As 19-year-old Beat Presser was hitchhiking from Vientiane into Northeastern Thailand in 1972, the car in which he had gotten a ride got into a an accident, leaving him seriously injured.
“I was taken to a hospital but there was no room there,” the Swiss photographer recalls. “So they told me they would put me in a monastery.”
A couple of days later at the monastery, the chief monk visited Presser and, seeing that his condition had not improved, took charge of his treatment. Within a few weeks, Presser was well again.
“I told myself that if ever I became a photographer as I was hoping to be one day, I would do a story on [Theravada Buddhism]. And 30 years later, in 2000, I remembered this vow, and came back to the monastery where I had stayed and started working.”
Over the next five years, Presser traveled to monasteries in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos and Cambodia to photograph monks. His series of black-and-white shots became a book entitled “Oasis of Silence,” which was published in German in 2005 and in English in March. A Khmer language version of the book’s text was released as an insert to “Oasis of Silence” this week.
The photos compiled for the book now are exhibited at the National Museum in Phnom Penh until Jan 20 as part of events marking the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Cambodia and Switzerland.
Organized by the Swiss Embassy in partnership with the Ministry of Culture and coordinated by the arts NGO Meta House, the exhibition opened Wednesday night with Swiss Ambassador Rodolphe Imhoof, who is based in Bangkok, in attendance.
Presser has focused on “the little monks” as he calls them, and photographed the child and teenage novices as they went about their daily work. In one photo, a boy monk showers by pouring a bucket of water over his head, his robe tied sarong-style around his waist, while in another a monk sweeps leaves.
In the book, Theravada Buddhism is explained as perceived by “the little monks.”
For example, a nine-year-old monk just brought in by his mother, the text reads, “is much more absorbed by the fact that he is not supposed to run and play around the way he used to,” than to discuss the Buddha’s representation by the Greeks centuries ago.
A great deal of Presser’s work has taken place on film sets and some of his previous books have been on the German actor Klaus Kinski and the German director Werner Herzog, with whom he has worked closely.
One of his next projects, he said, will be on Mahayana Buddhist monasteries.